20 July 2008

Karl Rove, Cartoonist

John Maxwell

It was an upstate New York banker named David Hannum and not the showman, P.T Barnum, who coined the expresion “There’s a sucker born every minute”. That seems peculiarly appropriate at this time, when banking has shed its sanctimonious pretensions and is now, unofficially but integrally, a part of show business.

Hannum’s aphorism occurred to me after seeing the cover of the latest New Yorker magazine. As most literate and illiterate people know by now, the New Yorker cover depicts Barack and Michelle Obama as two Muslim/Black Power terrorists,– in the White House Oval office congratulating themselves for comprehensively deceiving the American electorate and the Secret Service, and successfully achieving the multicultural; takeover of the United States presidency.

The Editor of the new Yorker, David Remnick contends that the cover is ‘obviously satire’ –a way of making fun of all the rumors. If it were not, he implies, it would be nothing but anti-Obama propaganda. And of course the New Yorker is way above that!

The alleged cartoonist, one Barry Blitt said: I think the idea that the Obamas are branded as unpatriotic [let alone as terrorists] in certain sectors is preposterous. It seemed to me that depicting the concept would show it as the fear-mongering ridiculousness that it is”. His boss, Remnick says the cartoon “uses the language of political satire and cartooning, not of reporting and essays, and sometimes not everyone likes that or gets what's intended. I would prefer not to over-explain things, but I'd rather be clear than there be lingering misconceptions about what Barry Blitt was exploring.”

How very quaint.

Not as quaint as those who like Andrew Malcolm in the Los Angeles Times and Clarence Page in the Chicago Tribune, appear to have brains of pre-stressed concrete. Malcolm quotes Page approvingly “The Chicago Tribune respected columnist Clarence Page, an African American, said he found the cover "quite within the normal bounds of journalism."

Malcolm’s only problem seems to be that “… there's no caption on the cover to ensure that everyone gets the ha-ha-we've-collected-almost-every-cliched-rumor-about-Obama-in-one-place-in-order-to--make-fun-of-them punchline. “

Ha! and again, Ha!

And there are dozens of others who think the satire is obvious to those sophisticated enough to grasp it. as sophisticated as Kelly McBride who is Ethics Group Leader at The Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank.

In Poynteronline. She says “…Remnick's justification is a solid one, given the current political environment. Journalists are finding that no matter how much reporting they do, how many facts they uncover, false rumors won't die. That's what PolitiFact encountered when a researcher took on the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate.” Even with that fact embedded in her word processor, McBride says “The New Yorker's latest cover is deeply offensive or really funny or simply accurate, depending on your point of view. That's how satire works.” and she concludes “Satire is risky business. I'm glad there are plenty of professionals around doing it well and keeping it alive” That piece is titled “Satire’s new home in Journalism”.

I kid you not.

It was the sophisticates of course, who saw and appreciated the glorious magnificence of the Emperor’s new clothes – which existed only in their gullible, ‘with-it’ minds – the sort of minds that fuel every Ponzi scheme. There’s one born every minute as Mr Hannum said more than a century ago.

On the day of the New Yorker publication I drafted a letter on behalf of senior Caribbean journalists who, I thought might want to express their feelings on the matter. Only three replied, and one objected to my calling the cartoon a criminal libel. I removed the sentence, but even then only two were willing to go with the statement

Letter to the Editor of the New Yorker

“As journalists and human beings we all understand that public life is not a kindergarten and that politicians and others in the public eye are always at risk of hard rough challenges. We also believe that journalism has the right and the duty to expose falsity and corruption wherever they are found.

That being said, we believe there are certain bounds within which responsible journalism must find itself constrained: we have no right to rob people of their dignity, their privacy or their reputations. And, as your Justice Holmes once said, Freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theatre.

Your editor, David Remnick is quoted by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post as defending the Obama cover as a ‘satire’ – as a way of making fun of all the rumors. We confess that we and everyone we have spoken to, must have missed the point of the satire. We see no ‘fun’ in it. What we see appears to be a clumsy, maladroit drawing which is obviously directed at the Obamas personally and not at ‘rumors’.

Satire – if it is satire – requires wit and point, it requires art, in turning the obvious on its head to illustrate the truth hidden beneath. Satire does not need to be amusing, but it should be able to provoke an insight, a glimpse of a larger truth and the recognition, wry or rueful, perhaps, that we have been led, perhaps even tricked, into a new point of view, a perspective hitherto unnoticed.

Your plain, bald posterisation of the major untruths circulated against Barack and Michelle Obama does not provide any of this. In the present state of race relations in the United States and round the world, this is incendiary stuff, the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre.

It seems calculated to provoke hatred and contempt for Barack and Michele Obama and other people of colour, and like the Danish cartoons featuring the prophet Mohammed, likely to incite violence.

Many of us have been readers of the New Yorker over the years and none of us can remember anything so patently inhumane or propagandistic ever appearing before anywhere in the magazine.

We think you owe the Obamas and the world, an apology”

We are three Caribbean journalists with over a hundred years of experience among us.

sgd John Maxwell

Canute James

Rickey Singh

I am not sure why only Canute James and Rickey Singh were willing to sign this letter, but I salute them

They are obviously aware of Aesop’s fable about the frog and the little boys who were throwing stones at it. “What is fun to you is death to me,” the frog said.

Someone who truly understands this principle is the intelectual authority of the Swift Boat campaign of the last US presidential election and the man whose signature on the New Yorker cartoon would have made its satirical intention plain and put the issue triumphantly to rest.

The missing signature, is of course that of Karl Rove.

Footnote 1

Successful political leaders need to have an exquisite sense of timing. The challenger to Portia Simpson Miller seems to have a tin ear for the music of politics. To challenge for the PNOP leadership at the height of the hurricane season, with a general election looming and the country in economic crisis seems to me more than stupid.

Footnote 2

The people who stole thousands of tons of sand from one of the loveliest beaches in Trelawny make, for them, a completely unexpected point: beaches are public property and should not be privatised. If al had access to the beach there would be no point in stealing sand. These thieves should be prosecuted rigorously and should ideally, serve a little time, ‘wetting dem foot’ as we say.

copyright ©2008 John Maxwell


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